It’s an argument as old as football statistics: is it more important to play possession football, or can you get away with letting the other team control the ball, and taking your chances on the counter? If you’d asked me six months ago, I’d have said no. Possession football was a king in FM20’s match engine, making Tiki Taka and Control Possession enormously useful tactical styles. In FM21, though, I’ve found it’s quite possible to play well without controlling the ball. Let’s look at how that might be working.
I have two saves going at the moment, both series on YouTube (so you can check this out yourself). In one (the Demi-Gods), I’m playing a custom gegenpress tactic, which generally gets an even amount of possession – 50% either way. So it’s not quite possession football, but it’s effective enough. In this series, it’s hard to tell the effectiveness of the tactic because of the nature of the players I’m using, so I’m not going to talk about it again.
In the other save (The Loyal), I’m playing with San Diego Loyal, in a 9-tier custom database by FM Digi. He’s built a pyramid in the USA, with full promotion and relegation, that replaces MLS and the non-playable leagues below it. In this series, I’m using a Custom Wing Play style, which suits the excellent wingers I have at the club. With this tactic, I’m averaging 41% possession, the second-lowest in the league. And even though we’re that low in possession, we’re currently (seven games into the season) top of the league.
In fact, here are the league positions of the top five possession teams: 15, 13, 5, 6, and 10.
The positions of the bottom five possession teams: 20, 1, 14, 11, 17.
The median five? 7, 2, 9, 18, 4.
There’s no there, there. There might be a slight disadvantage in being low-possession, as four of the five teams are in the bottom half. It’s also possible that poorer teams are less likely to control possession. But that’s not much worse than the high-possession teams, and the median five have the best positions overall.
So why is it that way?
I suggest it’s because of the FM 21 match engine improvements. According to SI,
“One of the most obvious examples of this is the way that we have increased the number of interceptions across the pitch but particularly in midfield areas. Players will also now actively look to block passing lanes rather than following the movement of the ball.”
I believe this is the key to the whole thing. The players now intercept more intelligently, blocking passing lanes more effectively, and thus are disrupting possession football more. This plays into a counter-attacking style in obvious ways: the ball taken away in midfield, played to a rushing forward, and the counter is on.
There is also this:
“The entire philosophy around central play is now built around getting the most impactful attacking players on the ball quicker which means certain players will look to play riskier, more direct passes into team-mates occupying central attacking areas.”
This is also important: central players, particularly playmaker types, will attempt more risky, direct passes. Combine this with the “block passing lanes” play described above, and you’re going to see more possession lost, which again leads to counter possibilities.
Possession football is still quite possible in FM21, of course, if your team is good enough at passing and movement. But it’s no longer the first style I reach for when designing a tactic to suit my team. I’d argue this is a good thing.
To continue with this anecdotal evidence, let’s have a look at what my tactical counter looks like in the game.
To start, you’ll notice we play on Positive mentality. Sometimes, if I feel we’re being overrun a bit, I’ll drop it to Balanced, or if we need a goal badly I’ll go up to Attacking, but those are generally the only three mentalities I use. We play a counter-attacking style, but we don’t play defensively as such. I want my players always thinking upfield, looking for their outlet pass.
In possession, we play extremely wide, using overlaps by the fullbacks to create wing overloads. This leads to a good number of crosses finding targets in the box. That’s the orthodox part of our play, or what happens when we’re in possession. Our passing is direct, and the tempo is high – we’re coming for your goal, and we’re coming fast.
But the key to this tactic happens out of possession. In transition, you might expect us to Counter-Press as well as Counter, but in fact we Regroup when we lose possession, then begin the Counter-Press again to try and snatch the ball away. When we do, we have a brilliant forward with good First Touch and Technique. He brings the ball down, turns past his man, and begins running for the goal. With his Acceleration he gets up to Pace quickly, and can often burn his man during that turn. Even when he doesn’t, it isn’t hard for him to use his Technique to find a different way to beat his man, then face the keeper one-on-one.
If we don’t snatch the ball back right away after losing it, our 4-3-3 shape comes into play, with us defending as wide as possible. The idea here is to funnel play away from our two-stack outsides (winger and fullback), and into the less crowded centre. It is tempting to teams to bring an overload in that centre, trying to pass around our midfield. With a solid man at defensive midfield (a key part of any tactic I ever create, basically), we blunt that attack into one channel or the other. This cuts down the decision-making for the goalkeeper, as he only has to worry about the ball-carrier. The rest of the offence is marked off by various defenders. Remember we don’t counter-press, but regroup, meaning our players are in good position to mark.
One last important part of the tactic: we Stay on Feet. Not only does this reduce our chances of a disastrous penalty call. It also means that when we do make a tackle, our player is already on his feet ready to play the ball up the wing. That starts the counter, and we’re away on the opponent’s goal again.
Most of our goals come from that lone striker (40 last season, 30 the year before). That said, a reasonable 10-12 come from each winger as well, usually assisting one another in scoring.
I hope you’ve found this discussion useful. I tend to be of the opinion that tactics are only a part of how one wins games in Football Manager; dynamics considerations can affect so much of the game day experience that I think the tactic matters less than it used to. For me, it needs to fit the team that is going to play it: a happy team is an effective team. But beyond that, I believe you can win playing just about any tactic with reasonable balance, as long as it suits your team, and you keep them happy. Possession football needs to move over, as democracy has moved in to FM tactics.
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Other articles you might enjoy:
- Backroom Staff in FM21: The Team Behind The Team
- Setting Up a Save in FM21
- Touchline Instructions in Football Manager 21
- Beginner’s Guide to FM 21
- FM21 Guides: Newgen Guide for Countries and Clubs